Report: EU Expansion…On Its Way
Even though it sounds strange, the most successful policy the European Union has ever had has been very unpopular in Brussels for the past ten years. But now, the political and governing bodies of the bloc are taking a different view.
EU expansion is back on the list of things to do, and it will stay there.
Europe has changed a lot since the EU has grown and changed. The group has grown from having six members to have 27 members now. It was meant to help France and Germany get along in the middle of the 20th century, but after the dictatorships in Greece, Portugal, and Spain fell, it quickly became a way to protect democracy in southern Europe. Then, after communism fell, EU expansion changed a lot of Central and Eastern Europe in a big way.
The EU’s huge internal market has helped it prosper. European integration and growth have been difficult and ongoing. It was a huge success overall.
But most people haven’t liked expansion. Inside the political bubbles of the European Commission and the European Parliament, there have always been rumblings about the problems that come with institutions, budgets, and changes to the status quo.
Some of the EU’s most important member states agree with these complaints, which helps to explain why the process of expanding the EU stopped moving forward about a decade ago. Croatia was the last new member to join in 2013. In the meantime, the rest of the Western Balkans have been left out, even though they were officially invited to join 20 years ago (though some of them haven’t done much to help their accession).
The war between Russia and Ukraine has changed things. Just a few days after the invasion began, Ukraine asked to join the EU, and the EU accepted it as a candidate in record time. What had been unthinkable before became a strategic must-do all of a sudden. After the June 2024 elections for the European Parliament, the next European Commission is expected to make expansion a top priority.
Yes, there are risks with this change. The process of Ukraine joining the EU could get stuck like it did for the Western Balkan countries after the end of the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. But there are good reasons to believe that things will be different this time. After all, the EU’s security would be at risk if Ukraine wasn’t brought in. It would be a strategic disaster for the EU.
But becoming a member of the EU is not simple. It necessitates protracted, in-depth discussions that are best understood as a submission to all the laws and rules contained in the 35 chapters of the acquis communautaire, the body of EU law. The procedure is tedious, challenging, and unavoidable. There are no simple solutions. Following the initial six, additional nations joined after an average of four years of negotiations. In a record-breaking two years, Finland and Sweden finished writing their entire histories. Contrarily, Portugal, and Spain took roughly six years each because of the complexity of their agricultural policies.
The European Commission is now trying to figure out what the next step should be. In October, they will report on their findings. If the European Council agrees in December to start accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova, they could begin in 2024. If that happens, the next commission’s five-year term may end the talks.
But there are many obstacles. Ukraine needs to keep going with its reforms, and the EU needs to deal with the budgetary and institutional problems that come with enlargement. With enough planning, these should be doable. Both Spain’s entry in 1986 and Poland’s entry in 2004 took a long time and required careful handling of sensitive issues, but they worked out in the end.
Ukraine is big in terms of land area, but it is small in many other ways. In terms of population, it has a lot fewer people than the United Kingdom, which just left, but it is close to Poland and Spain. Its economy, on the other hand, is much weaker. Even before the war, its GDP per person was less than one-third of what it was in the EU as a whole. It has lost about a third more since the invasion. Adding Ukraine to the EU would put a big strain on the budget, which shows how important it is to be ready and have political will.
In the future, starting talks with Ukraine and Moldova about joining the EU could also lead to calls for more talks with the Western Balkan countries. If this deadlock is broken, the EU could suddenly be on track to have 35 members within a decade.
It’s important to remember that every time the EU has grown, people have worried that it will get weaker. Each time, though, the bloc has become stronger. As the EU has grown, it has become more important and relevant around the world. There’s no reason to think that if we added more people today, the result would be different. But the process must be carefully run to keep European values and standards in place. How the next step of EU expansion is handled will affect the future of Europe for decades.